Nero Becomes Emperor

Brief history of the events around Nero becoming Emperor of Rome

Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus.

Nero became betrothed to Octavia (Claudius' daughter) and he was officially adopted in 50 A.D., and became the most probable heir to the throne, even over Claudius' own son Britannicus. Britannicus was four years younger than Nero and suffered greatly because of his disgraced mother Messalina. Nero’s mother Agrippina moved very shrewdly by appointing Nero as Britannicus' guardian and from that time on the young Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus would be known as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus.

Having assured herself the title of Augusta, and her son the throne, Agrippina murdered Claudius in October of 54 A.D. and Nero, with the help of Burrus, was accepted by the praetorian guard and became emperor.

Nero succeeded and gave an inaugural address, probably written by Seneca, in which he promised to bring the empire the same peace and prosperity that existed in the days of Augustus, who exercised his authority in the midst of Republican rule and the Constitution.

Peaceful Order

During the first five years of his rule, Nero allowed Seneca and Burrus to run things within the empire. This first five years of Nero's reign were known as the "quinquennium Neronis" which became a legend within the provinces for sound administration and peaceful order.

The senate and the consul's powers seemed to get back their ancient functions. They enjoyed more security and initiative than they had known for many years. The coinage from 55 to 60 contained an inscription as a gesture pleasing to the senate. Nero governed wisely in these few years and maintained peaceful order. He prevented provincial governors and certain parties from extracting large sums from the local population to view the gladiatorial shows. He also took measures to improve public order. There were new laws against forgery and many reforms in the area of taxes and provincial administration. Nero made many promises to the senate concerning his plans for judicial fairness and these reforms also marked the beginning of his reign.

Pleasing the People

Nero had definitely come up with some interesting ideas. For example within the circuses and theaters there would normally be a large number of soldiers (Praetorian Guard) present, but Nero did not think that this gave the people a sense of freedom and at the end of 55 A.D. he had them removed from the games. This turned out to be a bad move because of the rival gangs and fights. The following year the soldiers were reinstated.

Nero was not pleased with killing unless it was deserved. In 57 A.D. he built a wood amphitheater for games, gladiator fights, and wild beast shows but he did not allow fighting to the death, even if those fighting were convicted criminals. It wasn’t long before the crowd cried for blood and Nero had to change his policy.

Nero soon became very suspicious and a bit paranoid. If he even suspected that someone was hostile to him in any way, he was ready to order their death, but he would not execute someone unless they committed some sort of treason. He did not like to execute people and when he was asked to sign an execution warrant, he would sigh "How I wish I never learned to write."

It is interesting that Seneca also did not like the idea of Roman executions. One situation that disturbed Seneca was in 61 A.D., when the city prefect Lucius Pedanius Secundus (a fellow Spanish citizen) was murdered by one of his slaves. According to Roman law (in case of a slave uprising) not only the murderer himself but every other slave in the house had to be killed. Lucius owned four hundred slaves including women and children. Though many protested against the slave executions Nero enforced the law.

Nero as Emperor

By 62 A.D. Nero was the established authority in Rome. His mother Agrippina was dead, Burrus, the praetorian commander, was also dead. Seneca had retired, Octavia was divorced and murdered. Poppaea was now married to Nero and she bore him a daughter in 63 A.D.

Poppaea had been Otho's wife and she had her eyes on Nero and plotted successfully to eliminate Octavia (Nero's wife), and Agrippina. Nero had his mother murdered in 59 A.D.

Nero considered himself an artist, although it is doubtful that he had much talent. He devoted his time to poetry, singing on the public stage, and to sport. He desired to replace the gladiatorial games with racing and Greek athletic contests, yet his biggest desires were never achieved.

Without those companions who had helped him in maintaining control of the empire, people were about to see Nero's true inward character. Ofonius Tigellinus, the new commander of the praetorian guard, was a bad influence on Nero. Nero also had many character flaws: vanity, greed, cruelty and a lust for power. He regarded the principate as tyrannical and none of his predecessors, he said “had realized what they could do” (Suetonius, Nero, 37).

Just like Claudius, Nero began to surround himself with the worst sort of people. The expense wars in Britain and Armenia caused many problems. There was also a deliberate depreciation of the coinage. The hated law of treason (maiestas) was revived and used to destroy the Senate and aristocracy.